Hard times for China’s local environment officials

Caught between a rock and a hard place, county-level environment bureaus follow local economic diktats, yet are blamed for the ecological problems that ensue. Jiang Gaoming reports.

China’s central government recently promoted “ecological civilisation” as an important aspect of a developed society in the report from the Communist Party’s seventeenth congress. This is encouraging news for China’s troubled environmental movement, but questions remain. Why, for instance, were trials of “green GDP” abandoned in 10 provinces? Economic development still trumps environmental protection in China, and without attention at the highest levels, there can be no solution.

County-level environment bureaus are the grassroots of Chinese environmental protection. Although some areas do have departments at sub-county levels, these are rare. It is also at the county level that most ecological damage is done, and from this level that the pollution devastating China’s seven largest river systems originates. The country’s many small-and-medium enterprises, which are dirtier and harder to clean up than larger firms, are also mostly located at the county level. But what do the local environment officials have to say?

An old friend of mine was recently made director of a county-level environment bureau. He recently paid me a visit and I congratulated him on his appointment, but he simply shook his head and told me he was troubled.

County-level directors, he said, are in a difficult position. In theory, they are subordinate to higher-level environment bureaus, but they are managed by the county Communist Party and government committees, meaning they take orders from local government officials. And while these officials may support environmental protection, they are more worried about GDP, finances and the evaluation of their performance. For instance, generating income from taxes to pay public sector workers such as teachers is accorded a far higher priority than the environment. The local government will often side with polluters, but the environment bureau is supposedly responsible for preventing pollution, so will take the heat for any failure.


Conflicts often arise with local residents, who assume that country-level bureaus will deal with polluters – since nobody else will. When a major pollution incident occurs, they complain to the local bureau. If the polluters are closed down, local government officials will often fire the environment bureau chief. (And if they do not, the locals often demand it.)


Attracting investment is the most important task for county governments, because investment means tax income. Pollution risks will be ignored: “attract the investment first and worry about any problems later”. Polluters are thus treated as saviors by the heads of poverty-stricken counties, and the environment bureau is ignored. As far as local officials are concerned, the environment authorities are there to make sure everything goes smoothly. In one case, the county-level environment bureau was required to carry out an environmental impact assessment for a new project over the course of 24 hours. It is hard to imagine much was assessed. Tax income trumps the environment, local government officials and business people know it.


When a major pollution incident occurs, the government will sometimes get involved, drafting in the police, prosecutors, court cadres and environment officials. But legal authorities are often quick to disappear again, leaving the environment bureau to deal with the problem – and incur the wrath of local government and business. On occasion, businesses will even find cause to sue, and environment officials lose their jobs while the business goes back to work.


Local environment bureaus make most of their money collecting fines for excess pollution, but this money is transferred to the local government. These fines do not amount to much. Taxation is taken more seriously: tax collectors are the heroes of local government and given respect by businesses.


When firms have paid for their emissions, they often just pollute more. China has strengthened its oversight of pollution in recent years. However, a lot of treatment equipment has been installed that is only turned on when someone is checking. Or equipment is only turned on during the day, while pollution is dumped at night. This is how China’s waterways continue to be polluted. The polluters are often better connected than the county-level bureaus, and may even know of inspections before the environment authorities do, meaning they can make sure everything is ready well in advance. 


Breaking the law is cheaper than conforming to it. Polluting pays; protecting the environment costs. That is what gives my friend headaches. But the environment affects us all, our children and grandchildren. That is why environmental protection needs vertical management: local environment officials should be managed by their superiors, not by local government. They should also be granted greater powers. If we are to reclaim our blue skies and clear waters – and build an “ecological civilisation” – we need to empower our local environment authorities.

Jiang Gaoming is a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany. He is also vice secretary-general of the UNESCO China-MAB (Man and the Biosphere) Committee and a member of the UNESCO MAB Urban Group.

Homepage photo by Steve Jurvetson